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SpaceX may try to catch Crew Dragon capsules with a giant net. (No, really.)

Half of a SpaceX Falcon 9 payload fairing settles into the net of the boat GO Ms. Tree on the night of Aug. 6, 2019, in this screenshot from a video posted on Twitter by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
Half of a SpaceX Falcon 9 payload fairing settles into the net of the boat GO Ms. Tree on the night of Aug. 6, 2019, in this screenshot from a video posted on Twitter by SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.
(Image: © Elon Musk/SpaceX via Twitter)

SpaceX's Crew Dragon astronaut taxis may not always cap their missions with ocean splashdowns. 

The company might end up trying to snag returning Crew Dragons with net-equipped boats, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Sunday (Jan. 19) during a news conference shortly after the capsule aced a crucial in-flight abort test (IFA). 

SpaceX already operates two such boats, named Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief, which to date have been employed to catch falling rocket payload fairings (the protective nose cones that surround satellites during launch). The boats have succeeded on a few occasions, but most of their targets have ended up in the drink.

Related: SpaceX's Fairing-Catching Boat Ms. Tree in Photos

"This requires ongoing discussions with NASA, but I think it would be quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing, once that is really well-established, to catch Dragon as it's coming in from orbit," Musk said. "And then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing." 

NASA has considerable input in this decision because SpaceX has been developing Crew Dragon under a series of contracts from the agency's Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The CCP is counting on SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing its own capsule called CST-100 Starliner, to fly NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), a job that only Russian Soyuz spacecraft have been able to do since the space shuttle fleet retired in July 2011.

Sunday's successful IFA seems to put Crew Dragon in the home stretch to crewed flight. If detailed IFA data analyses reveal no surprises and Crew Dragon passes two more system-level tests with its revamped parachutes, SpaceX will be cleared to fly Demo-2, a test mission that will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS. Demo-2 could end up launching as early as this spring, Musk said on Sunday.

SpaceX sees total and rapid reusability as the key to opening space to much greater exploration, including the colonization of Mars and the moon. Indeed, the company routinely lands and reflies the first stages of its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and has pulled off similar touchdowns during liftoffs of the huge Falcon Heavy launcher, which has just a few missions under its belt.

Ms. Tree (which was formerly called Mr. Steven) and Ms. Chief are part of this overall vision. SpaceX payload fairings, which fall back to Earth in two pieces, are worth about $6 million, Musk has said. The company wants to start reusing fairings, a goal that will be more easily achievable if the hardware doesn't get dunked in corrosive seawater.

Similar reasoning likely applies to the putative Crew Dragon catches. SpaceX currently plans to fly a new Crew Dragon on every astronaut-carrying mission to the ISS, but reuse of the capsule for crewed missions might be a more feasible or attractive option in the future if the refurbishment process is eased.

(SpaceX holds a separate contract to fly robotic resupply missions to the ISS using the Falcon 9 and the cargo version of Dragon. Cargo Dragon splashes down in the ocean, and SpaceX routinely reflies that spacecraft. But a different risk calculus applies to human spaceflight.)

Boeing's Starliner comes back down to Earth on terra firma, and each capsule is designed to fly up to 10 space missions, company representatives have said.

Mike Wall's book about the search for alien life, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), is out now. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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  • John
    I wonder why SpaceX did not design their astronaut capsules to land on terra firma whereas Boeing's capsule does and is designed to be reused 10 times. This means SpaceX will have to build a new capsule for each launch, that doesn't make financial sense to me. Notwithstanding the chance of a mechanical or otherwise error during construction when you compare that to a previously successfully flown capsule that has passed all the tests, including the big one. SpaceX is known for making reusability a reality and I applaud that, but what happened to this mindset regarding the capsule?
    Reply
  • SpaceManOhYEAH!
    John said:
    I wonder why SpaceX did not design their astronaut capsules to land on terra firma whereas Boeing's capsule does and is designed to be reused 10 times. This means SpaceX will have to build a new capsule for each launch, that doesn't make financial sense to me. Notwithstanding the chance of a mechanical or otherwise error during construction when you compare that to a previously successfully flown capsule that has passed all the tests, including the big one. SpaceX is known for making reusability a reality and I applaud that, but what happened to this mindset regarding the capsule?

    my guess is that late in the design phase SpaceX were forced into selecting the lowest of risks options as a fallback plan due to a failure in the effort to get propulsive landings to work in time for the crew program milestone commitments they needed to hit to keep the $ coming in.
    Reply
  • Drustafa
    That was the idea originally. The capsule would propulsively land using the Super Draco thrusters, and small landing legs would come out the bottom through the heat shield. They decided against it to speed up development, and reduce testing delays since a lot more would be needed to make sure the heat shield is not compromised. SpaceX will probably not continue with the original plan, as their R&D is focused on Starship with the intention of superceding the Falcon 9 rockets since they will end up being cheaper and more capable at the same time, rendering the Falcon 9 obsolete.
    Reply
  • HTSS
    John said:
    I wonder why SpaceX did not design their astronaut capsules to land on terra firma whereas Boeing's capsule does and is designed to be reused 10 times. This means SpaceX will have to build a new capsule for each launch, that doesn't make financial sense to me.

    There is no such thing as "financial sense" at all for crew contracts between Boeing and SpaceX.

    NASA pays Boeing $4.2 billion and it pays SpaceX $2.6 billion for identical contracts.

    Source: https://spacenews.com/41891nasa-selects-boeing-and-spacex-for-commercial-crew-contracts/
    Reply
  • Curtis Quick
    John said:
    I wonder why SpaceX did not design their astronaut capsules to land on terra firma whereas Boeing's capsule does and is designed to be reused 10 times. This means SpaceX will have to build a new capsule for each launch, that doesn't make financial sense to me. Notwithstanding the chance of a mechanical or otherwise error during construction when you compare that to a previously successfully flown capsule that has passed all the tests, including the big one. SpaceX is known for making reusability a reality and I applaud that, but what happened to this mindset regarding the capsule?
    NASA did not want to have Crew Dragon land propulsively. NASA also did not want to have landing legs protruding through holes in the Crew Dragon heat shield. Since the customer, NASA, said no, SpaceX did not feel the need to argue and keep pushing for propulsive landings for Crew Dragon. This was even more true because SpaceX was already planning Starship and did not want to throw even more R&D funding to solve a problem that NASA did not want and slow down Starship at the same time.
    Reply
  • Sam
    They are required and have tested landing on land. Use Draccos to soften the landing. Soyuz does it. I like steerable parachutes. That would be a lot more work though. The computer or pilot could land as softly as a feather after a few tries. Right on the heat shield. No damage.
    Reply
  • Curtis Quick
    AFAIK, there has not been a land landing test for Crew Dragon, and I don't think NASA has any interest in having Crew Dragon test landing on land. Where did you hear that testing a land landing was a requirement?
    Reply
  • John
    HTSS said:
    There is no such thing as "financial sense" at all for crew contracts between Boeing and SpaceX.

    NASA pays Boeing $4.2 billion and it pays SpaceX $2.6 billion for identical contracts.

    Source: https://spacenews.com/41891nasa-selects-boeing-and-spacex-for-commercial-crew-contracts/
    Maybe Boeing did a better job negotiating their end of the contract, after all, they have been around the block a few times more than SpaceX when it comes to these things. Obviously, we don't know the facts contained in the proposals, but I wonder if SpaceX requested funds to develop landing on terra firma instead of splashing down in the ocean? The big advantage is avoiding seawater contamination and therefore enabling the capsule to be reused, isn't that one of SpaceX's priorities? In light of the fact, the Orion capsule is already capable of landing on dirt and reused up to 10 times I believe gives an advantage to Boeing. Since the contract awards were more or less dictated by the respective company's needs, I wonder if SpaceX even addressed the landing issue? Or, did they leave it out thinking a higher bid would scare NASA off? Somewhere along the way, there was a miscalculation, part of that caused by not knowing the internal rules NASA set up, which is understandable. It must have been frustrating from the bidder's standpoint trying to read the minds of the NASA contract deciders. However, I still think Boeing had the advantage since they have had a long relationship with NASA and that counts a lot in any case.
    Reply
  • Torbjorn Larsson
    Curtis Quick said:
    NASA did not want to have Crew Dragon land propulsively. NASA also did not want to have landing legs protruding through holes in the Crew Dragon heat shield. Since the customer, NASA, said no, SpaceX did not feel the need to argue and keep pushing for propulsive landings for Crew Dragon. This was even more true because SpaceX was already planning Starship and did not want to throw even more R&D funding to solve a problem that NASA did not want and slow down Starship at the same time.

    Yes. IIRC Musk has officially stated something along the line that the sunk cost fallacy is (well, duh) a fallacy.
    Reply
  • Torbjorn Larsson
    John said:
    Maybe Boeing did a better job negotiating their end of the contract, after all, they have been around the block a few times more than SpaceX when it comes to these things. Obviously, we don't know the facts contained in the proposals,

    Speculative Kremlology is, well, speculative. IIRC I read the speculation that the both landing versions, Red Dragon and Crew Dragon, were axed when NASA put the brakes on development they did not want to risk (Crew Dragon land landing certification). I'm surprised that they allow hypergolics almost up to the crew compartment after STS similarly surrounded the crew with propellant and set off the rapid unscheduled disassembly once. But the Russian technology (so I guess the China first generation) looks very similar with an angled offset to the propellant tanks, so I guess YMMV.

    When SpaceX sought NASA contracts, an established commercial contractor (Kistler) failed miserably, and SpaceX lost out then or the round after. And generally Musk reason from first principles, so his economy planning would tend to be honest. If you look at the number of times SpaceX has made US type litigation against unfair (read: high likelihood of being corrupted) launch contracts - NASA, AIR Force once or twice - after that first round of NASA having unsurprisingly crapped in their pants 💩and gone for known cards instead ... SpaceX may have a point.
    Reply